After he'd finished reading Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, did director Joe Wright scribble on the last page, "Needs more pep?"
Wright is, after all, the man who put the cute little ampersand in Pride & Prejudice and gave us a giggly Lizzie Bennet rendered by Keira Knightley. Knightley is back again in the title role as the Russian chick who loves and loses and throws herself under a train.
Casting the British actress, whose last memorable performance was in Bend It Like Beckham and who appears topless on the cover of the current Allure magazine, may have brought roses to the cheeks of the folks in marketing. But it creates a crippling problem with regard to gravitas, of which more anon.
Meantime, welcome to Joe Wright's Anna Karenina: The Musical. No one actually sings, but from the proscenium-arch opening on the adulterer Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) scurrying down a well-upholstered hallway in search of fun, to its final shots of noble peasants rhythmically scything, the movie sets out to deliver Broadway dazzle.
There are dances, there are races, there are freeze-frame tableaux vivants in the manner of My Fair Lady. There is heaving between the sheets, followed by wringing of hands and rueing of the day.
And for a while at least, why not have a ball? Tolstoy gave good ballroom, too, and for all his reputation as the ultimate realist writer, he deployed an array of literary strategies in Anna Karenina — including a section written from the point of view of a dog. But his prose wasn't forever blaring, "Look, Ma, no hands!"
And given that Anna's adventures in extramarital romance famously end in tears, there are (or should be) limits to how long you can sustain the jaunty tone; Wright keeps at it, alas, until it's too late for tragedy, even considering the endlessly foreshadowing grind of giant train wheels presumably meant to remind us that this is not a caper.
The best that can be said of Knightley is that she's puppy-eyed eye candy, in vibrant reds and blacks with fur trims to die for. But that's window dressing, and under her glossy surface, Anna Karenina is a woman of many passionately conflicting parts — reluctant temptress, ardent lover, loving mother, an urban sophisticate who's also deeply insecure and hungry for approval. She's a modern woman way before her time.
All of which Knightley mangles into her customary rotation of pouty-lipped sex kitten, hysteric, and tragic victim of society, each pose separated by little gasps of surprise. Inner life comes hard to Knightley, and she never gets a grip on the mounting emotional turmoil that threatens to crush Anna as she progresses from stylish young hipster-about-town to kept woman to bereft mother to paranoid social pariah.
It doesn't help that her paramour, Count Vronsky, is played by a vapid Aaron Taylor-Johnson in bottle-blond hair and sparkly teeth. Or that Knightley is flanked by three actresses — Kelly MacDonald as her frumpy but admiring sister-in-law (allegedly modeled on Tolstoy's long-suffering wife), Olivia Williams as Vronsky's mother, and Emily Watson as a prim paragon — any of whom who would have done full justice to Anna's long slide into despair.
Still, there are things here to treasure, among them the inspired bit of casting mischief that has bad boy Jude Law as Anna's husband, Karenin, a stuffy, old-school bureaucrat untenably stuck between forgiveness and revenge for his wife's betrayal. No winking at the audience here: Law commits fully to the role and to Tom Stoppard's often brilliantly pithy screenplay.
It's Law's earnest Karenin who articulates the novel's deeper moral dilemmas, to the tortured nature that traps Anna (and Tolstoy) between the old, rigidly rule-bound world and an emerging new one that's bringing divorce, uppity women and moral uncertainty with it. "I'd call on her if she'd only broken the law, but she broke the rules," whispers one imperial matron after giving a desperate Anna the cold shoulder.
Small wonder that the most successful love story in this Karenina is between the landowner Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a flighty young thing who, having gotten over her own crush on Vronsky, steps up to become a sterling country wife. Re-enter peasants, rhythmically scything.